One of the most common — and dreaded — childhood illnesses is strep throat. Not only is the sore throat (and all the other symptoms that come with it) uncomfortable, but left untreated the illness can have serious consequences. It requires antibiotics to treat, and usually that means parents have to take their sick child to the doctor's office or emergency room for a strep test. But what if there was a way to determine if a kid caught strep without making them get off the couch? A new study says at-home strep tests could save parents time and money — but how would they work?
Many parents are familiar with the symptoms of strep: a bad sore throat that seems to come on quickly, a fever, swollen tonsils that may have white "patches" on them, and in some kids even nausea and vomiting. Parents often suspect strep when their kids come home with a sore throat but they aren't congested or coughing — two common cold symptoms, but not symptoms of strep, according to the CDC. Even though a parent might be pretty confident their child has strep just by taking stock of their symptoms — or knowing that it's been making its way through a child's class — the only way to be sure is with a strep test.
A strep test is usually done in a clinic, a doctor's office, or the emergency room. A doctor takes a cotton swab and gets a sample from the back of a child's throat. While the test can be unpleasant, it doesn't take long to complete and the initial results (called a rapid strep test) usually come back fairly quickly. If the bacteria that causes strep throat is detected (group A Streptococcus), a course of antibiotics will usually be prescribed. It's not unusual for a child to start feeling better just a few days after starting antibiotics, but it's important for them to keep taking the full dose for all the days prescribed — even if they don't feel sick anymore, according to the CDC. If a child with strep throat doesn't get antibiotics, or doesn't take the full course, they may be at risk for developing rheumatic fever, a severe illness that can permanently affect the heart, according to Medline.
A team of researchers at MIT and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center wanted to know what would happen if they developed an easy, affordable, and quick strep test that parents could use at home. Their findings, published in the Journal of Participatory Medicine, indicated that once parents were instructed on how to do the test, the combination of convenience, a lower cost, and diagnostic accuracy made it very appealing for parents and doctors.
Dr. Lester Hartman, medical home director at Westwood-Mansfield Pediatric Associates and one of the study's authors, has been offering at-home strep tests to his patients since 2008. The tests require parents to swab the back of their child's throat — the same way a doctor would in the office — then pop it into a test tube. After about ten minutes, the results will appear. If the result is positive for strep, a parent could then call their child's doctor and get a prescription for an antibiotic. If the test came back negative, but a child didn't seem to be getting better, the parent would then make an appointment with the pediatrician, or, if warranted, make a trip to the emergency room.
In addition to being more convenient for parents and children, if fewer kids are in the office or ER because they need a strep test, that frees up healthcare providers to tend to more serious conditions and emergencies. "The ultimate goal for parents is to self-manage their kids in their home and not have to leave the home and go to a doctor unless the kid is really, really sick," Hartman added. Researchers indicated that these at-home testing kits usually cost just a few dollars — which is less than a typical co-pay for an office or emergency room visit, and way less than what it would cost for families who are uninsured.